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Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Year in Reviewing

If this article painted a grim picture of the state of Australian film criticism at the start of the year, things have only gotten worse: everywhere you turn reviewers have been fired, others have been replaced by critics already working elsewhere, and the “new screen focused review show” the ABC promised turned out to be Screen Time, a chatty panel show that featured a grand total of zero full time film critics.

It’s been clear for a while now that the future of film reviewing – and much of the media in general - is global. A handful of big name players will dominate the global market, small-time local outlets will pick up the crumbs left over, and those in between will increasingly find themselves squeezed out. That’s already the case with film reviewing. The USA and UK have a handful of big name critics whose opinions are sought out world-wide; it’s a very long drop to the local level, where “influencers” are wined and dined (well, free popcorn’d and coke’d) at a screening so they can talk about the good time they had at the movies on breakfast radio.

Australia is an English-speaking nation with (generally) timely access to the Hollywood blockbusters readers are interested in world-wide; why don’t we have any world-level critics working in our media? Partly it’s due to our media having no global reach: News Corp’s Leigh Paatsch is Australia’s mostly widely read reviewer, but thanks to News Corp's paywalls their arts coverage doesn't attract online interest (which may be why Paatsch seems to have shuttered his reviewing twitter account:

Partly it’s due to local media organisations having zero interest in competent film coverage: both the ABC and Fairfax have shed numerous critics in recent years, while Fairfax’s current approach – spreading new releases across three reviewers – means that the film and not the reviewer is the focus for promotion; if you’re interested in Jake Wilson’s take and he’s not the one reviewing a particular film, you’re out of luck. Having a single reviewer is clearly a much stronger marketing angle, but this team approach is consistent with Fairfax's long running opposition to making decisions that might conceivably attract or retain readers.

And partly it’s… a whole range of factors, from Jason di Rosso, the ABC’s only remaining full-time critic, working on radio (where reviews, even in podcast form, are less likely to travel internationally), to international players bringing their own critics to Australia, to a general shift away from traditional reviews towards hot takes as websites realise that film articles on race and gender are much more likely to get hits than film reviews focusing on storytelling and performances.

Film criticism has never been a job with a high turnover. People who score a position being paid to watch movies rarely move on of their own free will. But with the local market shrinking – it’s increasingly likely that when the (two?) remaining full-time critics in the Australian media finish up they won’t be replaced - and no scope to expand overseas, new voices are being squeezed out. The handful of Australian critics who have made a name for themselves locally are constantly forced to take jobs that once would have gone to up-and-comers as opportunities shrink across the board. Unpaid blogs and podcasts remain an option for those able to make a living elsewhere, but without the reach of established media players it's difficult to be heard.

And so we return to the same situation we had thirty years ago: paid film criticism is basically a closed shop, only now it’s name recognition rather than being attached to a big publication that keeps a reviewer in work. But as the direction of local media increasingly turns towards focusing on the handful of things that aren’t being done better overseas, the result – as we’re already seeing with The Guardian, where the only films reviewed by Australians are Australian films – will be that the international blockbusters that dominate Australian cinemas will be reviewed by international critics, with local critics left to write professionally on a handful of Australian films a year.

Of course, this is only bad news if you think international films deserve a local take – if you think Australian culture in some way differs from the United States and so films addressing issues specific to one culture could be viewed in a different way by another. But if you thought like that then you’d never get a toe-hold in the international market – and as we’ve established already, that’s really the only option left if you want to make reviewing your career. Still, it could always be worse: if you really want to have a long-term future in reviewing film, it’s probably a good time to start learning Chinese.

Anthony Morris

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